Travel Notes from the Isles of the British Isles, Summer 2009

Travel has always inspired me and informed my art. This summer’s trip was no exception. Even though my husband, Tom, and I toured England, Belgium and Scotland, the highlight for me was the visit to the islands of the British Isles. It is difficult to name a favorite place but the raw landscapes of these islands were fascinating.

We began our journey to the islands by flying into Kirkwall, Main Island of Orkney, from the north of Scotland. We were immediately impressed by the treeless rolling hills that reminded us of home — the Kansas Flint Hills (only surrounded by water!).

Barbara Solberg - Photo - Ring of Brodgar, Orkey
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

What a treasure trove of archeological sites Orkney proved to be! From seeing the Standing Stones of Stenness, The Ring of Brodgar (photo on left) and then Maeshowe, a Neolithic burial chamber dating back 5,000 years where I got my first glimpse of true runic carving. These runes were inscribed by invading and plundering Norsemen around 1100 A.D. Some of the runes have been translated, and in addition to the cryptic “That will be true which I say, that treasure was carried away. Treasure was carried away three nights before they broke this mound” others reveal a flippant graffiti attitude — “Eyjolf Kolbeinsson carved these runes high.”

Taking photos of the world-famous Skara Brae archeological site, we were literally leaning into a mean rainy wind just to stay upright! Chatting with the locals later at a neighborhood pub, we soon learned that this was the norm and that night it was “a blowin’ up a gale!” However, we were undaunted as we were determined to see all we could in the three days we were there. Somehow, adversity adds a lasting quality to the memory of a place. I purchased a wool scarf as a souvenir and wore it almost every day in the islands and this was July!

Barbara Solberg - Sketching - Orkney
Sketching on Orkney

What a delightful surprise to find a world-class arts center/museum in Stromness! I am always interested in seeing what local arts groups are doing and was totally amazed by the quality of art there, the art collection (second-to-none) and the building itself. A dynamic conversation with a gallery attendant has led to more emails back and forth over the waves and, no doubt, an ongoing relationship with this place! (More to come at another date.) But, for now, see what they have to offer by going to their website The founder of Pier Arts Centre was Margaret Gardiner, a friend and benefactor of sculptress Barbara Hepworth.

We were then off to Shetland in the north, which is a place of contrasts — sharp volcanic cliffs with ocean waves crashing below onto the shore, green gently rolling hills dotted with sheep and Shetland ponies, a mostly treeless land.

We landed on Shetland after a quick 25-minute flight from Orkney. The plane ride was decidedly better than facing a six-hour ferry ride from the north coast of Orkney. We were greeted with a blast of cold wind, although it was a lovely sunny summer day for Shetland. They were actually having an unusually beautiful summer.

Barbara Solberg - Photo - Black House Museum
Shetland Black House Museum

We experienced the sights of cut peat banks three-feet deep and peat stacks along the roads and the smells of a peat fire burning to heat a “black house” (now a museum – photo on left) that exists the same now as it did over 150 years ago. Very picturesque now with a thatched roof (held down with rocks so the wind would not blow it off), but 150 years ago it was a hard life living off the land with only several acres to grow grain and vegetables and to pasture a few cows and sheep.

Speaking of sheep, I have never seen so many! They are extremely docile and are everywhere in the hills, along the Norwegian Sea shore and along the one-lane roads with no fences to keep them in, only cattle guards. As we drove inches away from them going 50 mph, they barely glanced up. Tufts of wool cling to the heather bushes and can be mistaken for flowers at a distance. I am not sure if the term heather bushes is quite accurate but they are short bushy plants and extremely tough. I tried to snap off a twig that was blooming purple to take with me and could not do it. No wonder– they have evolved to survive the harsh climate in the north.

A word about the food of the islands. We had fantastic food in most places but three of the best meals stand out — lamb, salmon and a full breakfast spread of homemade yogurt, jam and Scottish porridge (the secret there it is made with cream — no wonder it tastes so good). Not to mention the scrambled eggs, huge rashers of bacon, sausage or kippers every morning! Did I mention that I gained 10 lbs on this trip? (hmmm-the Belgian beer may have had something to do with that too!)

So, a few travel notes about Orkney and Shetland. We were then on to the Outer Hebrides where more adventures were in store. Check back another time for more stories and photos. And check back to see new art pieces that have yet to be created. The right side of my brain is still percolating and sifting through hundreds of images and memories.